Written by: George Langelaan (story), James Clavell
Directed by: Kurt Neumann
Starring: David Hedison, Patricia Owens and Vincent Price
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďHelp me! Help meeee!"
Ever since David Cronenberg delivered a dark and twisted take on George Langelaanís ďThe Fly,Ē I think thereís been this perception that the original 1958 adaptation is somehow the lighter, quainter, and maybe even cornier version of the story. And maybe it is, at least in the sense that itís inherently dated (54 years of distance tends to do that) and subconsciously charms us with its antiquated science and technology. However, make no mistake--the film takes all of this just as seriously as Cronenberg himself later would, and its commitment to the humanity (and subsequent loss of it) at the center of the story makes it every bit as effective despite its obviously less showy effects.
Itís also easy to forget that The Fly is set up as a mystery; at this point, everyone remembers it as the story of a scientist (David Hedison) that ends up getting tangled up with the DNA of a fly after an experiment goes wrong. The story actually begins with his death, or at least with the discovery of his corpse, which is found mangled under a hydraulic press. While this is bizarre, itís even weirder that his own wife, Helene (Patricia Owens), claims to have been the one who did the deed, leading everyone to believe sheís just gone insane. She doesnít help her case by being unusually twitchy about the flies in her house, going so far as to openly weep when one is killed in her presence.
Enter her brother-in-law, Francois, essayed by Vincent Price who remarkably doesnít overpower the film; instead, his Francois is an almost tragically lovelorn figure who pined for Helene from afar but refused to act out of loyalty to his brother. In many cases, Price would sweep into a film and put it on the back of an appropriately hammy performance, but heís unusually subdued here. Thereís a moment when he remarks how Helene couldnít even hurt a fly, and, typically, Price would be all but twirling his mustache with his delivery; here, though, itís just an off-hand comment that doesnít come with so much as a wink or a nod.
This moment is indicative of how straight-laced The Fly is; even when Helene begins to narrate and flashback to how all of this happens, the absurdity of the situation never takes hold. Instead, a distinct, palpable despair emerges as the situation spirals out of control. When Hedison is introduced as the sprightly and well-intentioned Andre Delembare, we already know this is going to be a tragic story; this is why we wince as he introduces his wife to his new teleportation device, and we can slowly see him losing himself to his obsession. His first object, a dish, comes out on the other side alright, but its inscription has been reversed; so he tweaks it and eventually works his way up to testing it on his pet cat, an experiment that goes horribly awry. No matter. Like any other obsessed scientist, he plugs away and canít resist testing it on himself.
Only we donít see this, and this is where The Fly becomes a masterful work of horror thatís built on restraint. For the most part, itís not even shot like a horror movie--itís generally bright and full of pastels, and, even though itís set in Canada, itís all very 50s Americana. Thatís the deceptive quaintness that hides the real skin-crawling terror lurking beneath; visually, the metaphor obviously signifies that sort of terror that many believed was hiding in plain sight during the era. These atomic age fears had everyone believing that even suburbia would fall under the shadow of science-run-amok; in The Fly, a perfectly average family (that also includes a son) falls prey to a tragic loss of humanity once Andre inadvertently gets the head of a fly grafted to his body.
We donít see it immediately, of course--he remains shrouded, and we get a glimpse of his now-deformed hand until the big, theatrical reveal. The revelation of the effects here is very much an event even if they donít match the gooey, visceral nature of Cronenbergís three decades later. Nuemann seems to be more concerned with the psychological aspect anyway, which is not to say that Cronenberg wasnít too, but thereís a reason why his Fly is considered a body horror masterpiece. Subtly creepy moments, such as the disintegrated cat that now meows from ethereal netherworld, punctuate the film, and itís really Owens that carries the affair.
Which is not to say that The Fly doesnít save its share of surprises; the final ten minutes emerge from the extended flashback and pick back up in the present time, where Nuemann spins a Hitchcockian web of suspense by revealing the fate of that fly everyoneís been searching for all this time. Everyone else remains oblivious, of course, but now iconic cry of ďhelp meĒ is horrifying for the audience, and the filmís last effects gag (which is unexpectedly gooey) serves as the crescendo. Few films feature a more well-wound climax; in many ways, itís the equivalent of chasing a pesky fly before finally swatting it down as we watch these characters dart around, ignorant that the truth is lying right there in plain sight.
The Fly of course serves as another 50s parable about the perils of science, and itís especially obvious and on the nose in this regards. Hedison even talks about playing god at one point, which makes his downfall all the more staggering, as if his work is just a compulsion. Unlike a lot of these Cold War creepshows, The Fly is starkly intimate and human and reveals what can happens all the way down on the personal level; itís a movie thatís essentially about losing your soul, and its scariest moment features a man literally at war with his own body, as the fly half attempts to take control. Indeed, thereís nothing corny or daft about this version of The Fly at all; it may not be as overtly ďdarkĒ or edgy as Cronenbergís but itís nearly as sad and despairing. It was followed by two sequels, both of which accompany it in Fox's Fly collection; the disc for the original film is solid, with the transfer only occasionally rendering the film's CinemaScope photography a bit soft. The soundtrack even replicates the film's original four track stereo presentation with a 4.0 surround track. A commentary track with Heidson is the lone special feature, which fans might find disappointing; still, the three pack collection is quite a bargain, and this film should hover around any collector's shelf. Essential!
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